Peter Baird obituary

Other lives: Teacher and social worker who had a passion for Russia and would smuggle banned books such as works by Solzhenitsyn

My father, Peter Baird, who has died aged 78, was an iconoclastic teacher and practitioner of social work. He taught social policy at the University of Birmingham for two decades from 1970 and was a provocative columnist for the magazine Social Work Today, questioning professional orthodoxies and railing against political correctness. Before and after his teaching years, he was a social worker who fought passionately for his clients.

Peter had energy for many causes. He agitated with neighbours and the local Victorian Society – with some success – for the preservation of Birmingham’s old buildings. He was proud to have written a chapter on the architect Charles Edge for a Victorian Society book.

Another passion was Russia, to which he made many journeys from the 1950s onwards, sometimes smuggling books, such as works by Solzhenitsyn. He had a talent for languages and learned to speak Russian. In the course of his travels around eastern Europe he made lifelong friends.

Although initially attracted to communism, he saw the crimes of Stalin and his regime for what they were. Near the end of his life, he reflected that while one can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, “in the end, they [the communist regime] didn’t even have an omelette”.

Peter was born in Eastbourne, East Sussex, and raised in London. His father, Michael, was a lawyer whose real passion was medieval churches; his mother, Josie (nee Cohen), was a campaigner for prison reform who in middle age set up a jewellery business. Peter was sent to Rugby school, for which he expressed hatred for the rest of his life.

During his student years at King’s College, Cambridge, he considered becoming a vicar but ultimately chose social work. A trainee vicar who lodged with him in Birmingham later in his life described him as “surprisingly religious for a liberal revolutionary”.

However, he never sought to persuade others of his Christian beliefs. Rather, his drive was to help people, and he did so even after the point, in 2017, when he could no longer walk. He was a loyal visitor to friends who were older or ill, and to his widowed mother until her death at 96.

Peter’s other loves included steam trains, classical music and opera, and his bees in his south-facing garden, where he spent many happy hours. His first wife, Victoria (nee Currie), shared his pleasure in gardening: they were married for 16 years before her death in 1987. A second marriage, to Olga, ended in 2016. Peter is survived by his sister, Julia, his brother, Ambrose, bishop of Methoni in Greece, and his daughters, Helen and me.

Rachel Baird

The GuardianTramp

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